Have Script, Will Listen: "Death Across the Board"

After a May that had all the cheer of a pea-souper, summer is approaching at last. Great or small, the outdoors beckons. In light of this momentary brightening, it seems wrong somehow, or at any rate incongruous, to turn away from my scenic surroundings here in Wales to contemplate the largely generic fare that is popular culture. The challenge is always to make it matter; but sometimes it appears too much of an effort, a tiresome exercise in digging up what might have lain justly buried. Entirely worthy of excavation this weekend was A Cottage on Dartmoor, a gloomy love-gone-wrong melodrama that was shown by the BBC as part of a series of British silent films and documentaries on the subject.

A Cottage was filmed as the silent era drew to a close in the late 1920s. Like The Jazz Singer, it was conceived as a partial talkie, even though its soundtrack is no longer extant. Like the groundbreaking Al Jolson vehicle, A Cottage comments on the filmmaking tradition from which it departs even as it partakes of it; but unlike the former, it does not look forward to the dawn of the talkie with anything amounting to “You ain’t heard nothing yet” enthusiasm.

One scene of A Cottage is set in a movie theater transitioning from silents to sound pictures. The camera shows us an audience thrilling to the non-verbal slapstick of Harold Lloyd, presented with orchestral accompaniment. When the main feature, a talkie, is shown, the musicians abandon their instruments and turn to their sandwiches instead. The spectators are getting quiet as the people on the screen begin to talk; there is less interaction in the crowd as attention is being paid to the spoken word. The once animated crowd becomes as static as the actors on the screen, huddling around their appointed microphones. An elderly woman with an ear trumpet struggles to follow the action, frequently turning to her less-than-pleased neighbor for voice-over narration and some instant dubbing. The talkies, Anthony Asquith’s stunningly photographed A Cottage on Dartmoor suggests, are threatening to fossilize the fluid medium of the moving image, rather than serving as its revitalizing force.

In this sense, talkies are to silent movies what television is to radio—a death warrant. Who, besides Charles Chaplin or Norman Corwin, managed to defy technology with any success or integrity? Yet whereas silent moviemaking had about a quarter of a century to develop into an art, radio’s golden age, which also lasted about a quarter of a century, was relatively short on artistic highlights. Broadcasting demanded such a mass of mass entertainment and imposed such massive restrictions on its creators that radio drama was on the verge of extinction before ever getting much of a chance to come into its own.

On the other hand, the crudity of radio drama is often being exaggerated, used as a justification for its demise. No movie critic would mistake a screenplay for the experience of the play unfolding on the screen; and even though radio drama depends more heavily on the spoken word than the visual storytelling medium of film, they do not—and should not—rely exclusively on words to convey moods, set scenes, or create dramatic tension. To reduce an aural art to the merely oral is nearly as misguided as looking upon silent films as a series of close-ups and title cards.

On this day, 5 June, in 1945, the thriller anthology Inner Sanctum Mysteries presented “Death Across the Board”, a drama of pursuit starring acclaimed stage and screen actor Raymond Massey as a madman who regards his fellow man as so many pawns on a chessboard. When the script appeared in a handbook for the instruction of writers in radio and television, it was accompanied by the following remarks:

The reader’s first impression, if he is a person of any taste at all, is one of surprise at the actual crudeness of much of the writing, and the seeming clumsiness of construction. Furthermore, everything seems preposterously convenient for the writer, doesn’t it? He whirls from one improbability to another in a way that would earn any student the censure of his teacher—and quite properly—were he to do the same thing in any other form of writing.

Radio plays, however, are quite apart from “any other form of writing.” They are best appreciated—and most satisfying—when their limitations are understood to be creative opportunities rather than shortcomings. Like silent movie melodramas, radio thrillers are more than mere precursors to an ostensibly superior form of entertainment. And to give them a chance to work upon our imagination, it helps to listen to the medium for which they are created.

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